Note: This post is part of my series of posts on forecasting and related topics, related to my contract work for MIRI. While I think the post would interest a sufficiently large fraction of the LessWrong readership for it to be worth posting, it's not of as much general interest as some of my other recent posts. I do expect some of the information in the post to be new and useful to people who have hitherto associated futurology primarily with a few big names such as Ray Kurzweil, or are unaware of the distinction between the academic communities devoted to forecasting and futures studies.
This post is part of documentation of work I'm doing for MIRI on forecasting in various domains. This particular post is on the topic of futures studies, also known as futurology (Wikipedia). Futures studies is basically the study of the future, or rather, of possibilities for the future. I'd originally thought that the term would be futurism, but that term is used for an art movement.
What is futures studies, and how does it relate to forecasting?
Futures studies can crudely be thought of as forecasting the future, but while forecasting is an important component, futures studies often has the goal of guiding or shaping the future. It's called futures studies rather than future studies because it's the study of possible futures, how to cope with them, and possibly, how to bring them about (see, for instance, the futures techniques called backcasting and causal layered analysis).
Another difference between forecasting and futures studies is that while forecasting is typically done for specific timeframes, futures studies can be more amorphous: it can involve imagining and describing things that might exist in the future, without assigning either an expected time of arrival or a probability of realization. Futures studies can operate over time horizons ranging from 1-2 years to the very longest horizons of centuries that I discussed in a previous post. In general, the focus is not on getting the dates or probabilities right, but rather on describing what's possible.
Clearly, it's harder to evaluate the quality of work in futures studies compared to work in forecasting. With forecasting, the quality of forecasts can be judged by looking at the accuracy, bias, and utility to planners. Futures studies does not generally involve clear, falsifiable predictions. Thus, anybody can pontificate about the future and be labeled a futurologist, and it's not clear what criteria can be used to exclude the person from the futures studies community.
One way out is to start with an existing cluster of futures techniques, futures studies organizations, research centers, journals, and people, see what concepts they promote and what other entities they relate with. Indeed, there is a reasonably interconnected academic futures studies community and set of futures studies journals that can be used to bootstrap this process. It's not clear to me why an outsider (such as me) should grant credibility to this cluster. Indeed, unlike the case of the forecasting community (that I described in an earlier post), I haven't (yet) been convinced that this community as a whole deserves deference in questions of thinking about the future, relative to people outside this community who might spend time thinking about the relevant issues. Incidentally, an article by Michael Marien titled Futures-thinking and identity: Why “Futures Studies” is not a field, discipline, or discourse: a response to Ziauddin Sardar's ‘the namesake’ goes over the issue of the lack of clarity in what it means to be a futurologist.
Organizations and research centers involved with futures studies
Wikipedia also has a list of research centers that includes MIRI, and a longer list of futures studies organizations.
Journals and magazines in futures studies
For a longer list, see here.
Websites (in addition to the organization websites)
Other background reading
Relation between futures studies and scenario planning
In an earlier blog post, I described scenario planning and what it's used for. How does this relate with futures studies? I couldn't get a clear answer, so the points below are just crude impressions of mine. They could be quite misguided.
Relation between futures studies and forecasting (more)
The Wikipedia article on futures techniques lists a number of techniques for futures studies. Some of these are also of use in open-ended forecasting problems, but they are not of much use in short-term forecasting where the structure of the situation is well-understood and we need to predict a binary or continuous variable within that known structure. Some of the methods that overlap between medium-term forecasting and futures studies are:
The interaction/overlap between the forecasting community (as described in an earlier post) and the futures studies community seems minimal. There is some interaction: for instance, forecasting guru J. Scott Armstrong has written one article in the Journal of Futures Studies, and Armstrong's 1970 book Long-Range Forecasting is cited and used in futures studies programs.
Futurologists outside the futures studies cluster described here
There are many self-styled futurologists who fall outside the futures studies community as described here. Some of them belong to the scenario planning community, some belong to the forecasting community, some work in general predictive analytics, and some are subject matter experts in specific domains. A particular cluster of futurologists who fall outside the cluster described above is technology futurists. These are people enamored with technology, often technology as it relates to computers, automation, and the natural sciences. Indeed, I expect that most people at LessWrong are more familiar with this brand of futures scientists. Examples are:
Michio Kaku, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist
Michio Kaku, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist
Don't think so.
Oops! Thanks, I removed the "Nobel Prize-winning" part. I don't know why and how I formed that misconception.